Monthly Archives: October 2013

3rd time luckiest…(so far)

Like everyone who attended I suspect, I thoroughly enjoyed the Wild Photos conference in London this last weekend. It was very easy to be inspired by professionals at the very top of the wildlife photography tree as well as heartened to see the next generation coming through.  There were certainly some thoughts, approaches and techniques that I will be considering and building into some of the projects I have planned for the coming weeks and months too.

One of the clear messages that came through though was the need for dedication and what I like to call stickability: others might call it sheer bloody mindedness, but it’s the drive that makes you keep going out in the belief that this time might just be the occasion when something special happens.

Although it pales into insignificance in comparison with a 90 day vigil  in a hide in remote Kamchatka for just 3 images of the incredibly rare Amur Tiger which we heard about at the conference, simply keeping on going back to places that you know work well and have serious potential (especially if you have certain images in your mind that you have pre-visualised there too) is an approach that I have always worked on and encouraged.

On a very small and personal scale, a third visit to the now very popular glacial lagoon at Jokuslaron in southern Iceland earlier this summer proved the benefit of this.

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I first visited here nearly 10 years ago now, and this was my third visit in total.  Like much of Iceland it is now very popular, very well photographed and during the normal working hours of the day also pretty busy with people stopping in on their way round the island.  Fortunately at the time when the light has the potential at least to be at it’s best then it is less so, but it’s not a place you can expect to have to yourself anymore.

In spite of having stayed there for a number of days on both previous visits, I never felt this was a place I had done justice from either a landscape image perspective or with regards to the wildlife to be found in and among the icebergs floating here on their way to the sea having broken off the vast Vatnajokull glacier.

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The quality of images that have been taken here are very high now, and I don’t consider myself really to be a high quality landscape photographer, but on this visit was both determined (and ultimately lucky with the way weather conditions worked out) to at least feel I was doing the place justice when it came to the magical scenes of broken pieces of ice on the black sandy beach at the mouth of the lagoon as well as the incredible colours of the lagoons ice itself.

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Still very much work in progress, but these were certainly the best representation of the nature of the place that I feel I have achieved yet.

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A closer look at this last image reveals a Great Black-backed Gull perched on top of this particular multi-coloured piece of ice; in and around the icebergs were large numbers of Arctic Tern who nest in a large grassy area adjacent to the lagoon and working with the tides, use them as a base to fish from and rest on.  These make a great background and setting for the birds as they go about their business.

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Although I have been lucky with a beautiful male Harlequin duck here in the past, the star bird here though (and more reliably present), for me has always been the Eider.  Emerging from the seeming chaos of ice across the still calm waters of the further reaches of the lagoon, these elegant ducks look very much at home.

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The final morning though this summer offered the best conditions I have had in terms of the different elements that go into the small in frame type of photography that they offer here – mirror calm water, intense colours in the icebergs and the fantastic early morning light that these northern reaches can offer in the early hours of a summers day.

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All you then need is the ducks themselves to swim into exactly the right places and the icing lands well and truly on the cake.

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With the usual resident Snow Bunting also playing ball (albeit briefly) and allowing an iceberg created background I knew this was a special morning.

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None of these images are going to be prize winners – the bar is way way higher these days.  What they are though is a simple reminder that persistence does pay off, and as my autumnal targets are just about to enter my sights then this, along with the messages of the conference, is an always welcome tonic.

Alaskan adventure

Last month, at the end of a 7 week spell of non-stop travelling, I was able to embark on the second leg of my year of bears when I visited the beaches and creeks of Lake Clark National Park in Alaska.

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It was the first time I had been to this particular state and my expectations of having the chance to see and experience just what a true wilderness it is were well and truly met – even in the small plane transfer from Anchorage to the park which involved a beach landing (a first) the views out of the window were truly breathtaking inspite of the rain.

At this time of the year these coastal beaches are a true magnet as far as bears are concerned.

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The reason is all down to the fact that the creeks, that are a constant feature along the beaches, run inland to the spawning grounds of the various species of Pacific Salmon, specifically here in early that being the Coho, or as it’s locally called, the Silver Salmon.

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As these fish look to make their way upstream, when the tide is low many of them get caught or delayed in the extreme shallow waters (Alaska has some of the biggest tides in the world so it can happen quite easily) and this represents the perfect opportunity for the areas bears to engage in a true feeding frenzy and pile on the pounds ahead of their impending hibernation.

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At times, such as these two images, it really was like picking up sweets from the floor for them.

More often than not though it meant standing in the mouth of the stream watching carefully for the signs of a fish looking to make it’s way through, and so every low tide we would join whatever bears there were gathered there for the key fishing periods of 2 hours or so either side of low water.

Over time we got to know the individual bears quite well, especially this particular female, called Crimp-Ear because of a slight kink in one of her ears, and she was extremely reliable as a subject to work with, turning up in whatever the weather – early morning sun or afternoon wind and rain made little difference to her!

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As is the way here, there was plenty of rain and wet days were more the norm but this didn’t prevent the chance to go out and work – in fact the relatively flat low contrast light conditions were ideal for thinking in monochrome terms and some of my favourite images from the whole trip were taken with this end result in mind.  Bears are a great subject to work with in black and white as there is so much texture to their fur too.

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You can see that fishing was just as successful in these conditions but sometimes the bears could look miserable and fed up with the rain though!

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Because the main focus and priority for them is fishing and taking on as much extra poundage as they could (I think the best session Crimp-Ear had was 9 salmon in just one low tide), and also because hunting in the national parks is banned (unlike the rest of the State it has to be said), the bears are extremely unfazed and uninterested in people watching or photographing them. The sheer isolation of the place is in itself a control on numbers as are further park rules limiting group size.  The result is a no-hide and very open and engaging experience, and at times some very close encounters indeed.

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Lying on the sand as a bear walks up to you and then almost stands over you was both a thrill and a privilege that I will never forget.

She then showed more of this gentler side to her nature and also just how relaxed she was too by wandering off, making a small scrape in the sand and settling down for a short sleep in the open.

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The biggest thrills though came on the very last day when a combination of weather and events all came together for a fitting finale – great fishing activity and cracking light to work with proved a heady and intoxicating combination: the sudden burst from rest into running mode, the focus and concentration on the signs of where the fish had gone, the huge splashes of water thrown up during the chase all offered fantastic photographic opportunities.

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And then to cap it all a mother who decided this was the time to bring her cubs for us to see!  After allowing them to suckle she then decided to leave them with us as she had a short session of fishing herself – quite extraordinary to think she felt they were safer left with humans than alone as potential targets for the other bears in the area, and a testament to how relaxed all the bears here were with our presence too.

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As for the cubs themselves, well they were as cute and mischievous as you would expect before Mum finally decided it was time to head off along the beach.

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This was one of the most enjoyable trips I have ever done and one I can’t wait to repeat (plans are afoot to return in 2015 so if you’re interested in joining me drop me an e-mail), and although the memories are many, lying in a creek with a short lens as a bear walked by, lying on the sand looking up at a bear and just simply the chance to once again experiment with different photographic styles given the array of weather conditions we had to work with, will be right up there amongst them for sure.

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Now next month…it’s Polar Bears!